A social approach to learning: the battle between agility and inflexibility

The world is owned by agile learners: people able to adapt their style to each situation, to work with their formal and informal learning networks and to come up with dynamic and adaptable solutions. It’s less about what you know, more about your ability to find things out and create meaning from it: fast.

The tug of war between 'agility' and 'inflexibility'

The tug of war between ‘agility’ and ‘inflexibility’

Two forces battle it out in the social workplace: agility and inflexibility. A little of both is healthy, but too much disastrous. Agility is the recognition that one size does not fit all: that one approach may have delivered results last time around, but may not do so again. In dynamic situations, dynamic thinking is required and an ability to adapt. Social learning is, by definition, not formal. It’s the semi formal layers surrounding the formal. Within organisations, it’s often the case that control is exercised through process and systems, things that rely on codifying behaviours into repeatable patterns.

Surrounding this are the semi formal social activities, more responsive, more conversational, more adaptable. The advantage of this? It allows a more rapid iteration of response, it allows us to reach out to draw upon the experiences and to be challenged by others within our community, both within and outside of the organisation. The disadvantage? Social learning is inherently only semi formal: we cannot control the conversations, messaging or solutions, we can only be part of the conversation, so in regulated industries, or in places where confidentiality or control are essential for commercial viability or legal compliance, it’s harder to implement successfully (but not impossible!).

Inflexibility is the triumph of the old in stifling or rejecting the new, but not always in a bad way… new ideas are great, but they need to be refined, tested, distilled, because, well, some of them aren’t all that great after all. We need to create spaces for experimentation within organisations, both in terms of developing new process and exploring the potential of semi formal social learning to deliver real changes in how we do business, how we learn, how we innovate. But we also need appropriate levels of control and security: we have responsibility to protect the organisation, but also to protect individuals who may be less comfortable or capable in this social world.

Change is challenging and change is good: it’s a dichotomy. How much change is good for us? Agility is about introducing change, being open to risk, but in learning from that, using an action research approach: plan, do, review. Learn. It’s about change, but change that is moderated and considered. Don’t get me wrong: i enjoy the thought of sudden, paradigm shifting change, but the reality is that more often than not we are looking for sensible and considered responses. The point of adopting a social learning mindset is to allow the spaces for experimentation, making us more agile and adaptable than more conservative organisations, but also to ensure that the activity is delivering quantifiable change and that the change is for the better. We are taking risks, but not being reckless.

And an organisation that is getting the balance right between agility and inflexibility is one that is willing and able to make mistakes, indeed, one that expects to make them and is brave enough to learn from them.

Social media are permeating every aspect of work: from how we deal with each other to how we deal with customers, clients and projects. The division between formal and informal channels is blurred, faster than people or organisations realise. We have to adapt, even if we don’t realise it yet. We are seeing many high street names disappearing at the moment simply because they failed to realise that the world was changing: digital downloads of music were never going to go away, people were never going to go back to buying all their books or electrical items on the high street. A failure to be agile, being too inflexible killed them.

The whole point of an agile approach is that it’s agile: it’s not about always doing things radically different, it’s about being open to the idea of doing them differently at all. We have to explore new ways of working, recognising that learning is becoming more of a continuous activity, less of a defined and rarified event. To learn is to change: we need to be agile, but we need a certain element of inflexibility to keep us upright. We just need to constantly explore the balance and we willing to wobble now and then.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Agile, Change, Collaboration, Community, Control, Conversation, Disturbance, Formal Spaces, Informal Spaces, Knowledge, Learning, Personal Learning Network, Social Learning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A social approach to learning: the battle between agility and inflexibility

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